ACLU reaching out to drug defendants cleared in state lab scandal

  • Sonja Farak, of Northampton, a former chemist at the state crime lab in Amherst, appears in Hampshire Superior Court on Monday, April 24, 2013. Farak was found guilty of evidence tampering, drug theft and drug possession, and the Supreme Judicial Court last years dismissed thousands of drug convictions secured through testing at the Amherst lab. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2019 11:32:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Following the Supreme Judicial Court’s October decision to overturn thousands of drug convictions because of misconduct at an Amherst testing lab, a campaign has been launched to inform the defendants that they have been cleared of those charges.

The campaign is being led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which is the state’s public defender agency.

The cases were dismissed as a result of the misconduct of former state chemist Sonja Farak, of Northampton, who was using drugs from the Department of Health’s Amherst lab almost every day she worked there, and subsequent prosecutorial misconduct.

“This is a path to justice for thousands of people across Massachusetts — and an opportunity for them to more easily rebuild their lives,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “Most of the people affected by the court’s decision have already served their sentences, but continue to face the collateral consequences of a drug conviction, like challenges finding housing and employment.

“We can’t turn back time and get back the liberty people have lost — but we can get the word out that there may be significant relief.”

The campaign will utilize newspaper, radio, internet and television advertisements with a focus on western Massachusetts platforms, as well as flyers and printed postcards.

“Most of the Farak drug lab cases were from western Massachusetts,” said Bill Newman, director of the Western Regional Law Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The ruling that overturned the convictions also required the attorney general’s office to pay to notify those whose convictions have been overturned.

Newman said that, so far, 10,912 charges in 7,554 cases have been dismissed as a result of the Farak misconduct.

“There are going to be more,” said Newman, who said he believes that number will be in the thousands.

The misconduct of Annie Dookhan, who falsely submitted positive test results at a drug lab in Jamaica Plain, also resulted in the voiding of tens of thousands of drug convictions. Between the two scandals, Newman said that more than 47,000 charges across more than 28,000 cases have been dismissed. The affected cases range from 2003 to 2013.

Collateral consequences

Northampton attorney Luke Ryan’s work on behalf of his clients proved vital in exposing the breadth of Farak’s misconduct. Ryan said the treatment records his advocacy helped bring to light showed that Farak was either using or affected by drugs nearly every day she worked at the lab. He also said that this misconduct began virtually the same day she became a chemist in Amherst.

Ryan said that although he is not part of the effort to contact those whose convictions have been overturned, he supports it.

“With a drug conviction comes almost a second-class citizenship,” Ryan said. “The collateral consequences are really profound.”

He said that such a conviction can impact anything from being able to volunteer at your child’s school to one’s immigration status.

Of those convicted, Ryan said, “They’ve grown accustomed to living with this baggage.”

He also said that written notices aren’t sufficient alone, as they aren’t always received and people can also move, noting that someone’s address at the time of a conviction may well be different now.

Newman said that the search campaign for those who had their convictions overturned as a result of the Farak case is more robust than was the case for Dookhan, although the hotline is happy to answer questions from Dookhan defendants as well. He also said that a search firm has been engaged to find the current addresses of Farak defendants.

Ryan said he doesn’t believe that the drug lab scandals in Massachusetts are unique to the Bay State, but that the state’s public defender system, which he said is more robust that public defender systems in a number of other states, was able to bring it to light.

Ryan’s chief client eventually had his conviction overturned, but only after more than five years of incarceration. Ryan is now representing this client in his effort to seek monetary compensation for his imprisonment.

Ryan is also one of three attorneys with a pending class action lawsuit on behalf of exonerated defendants seeking the return of fees and fines that resulted from their now overturned convictions.

As for preventing such scandals in future, Ryan noted that society has made a choice to treat the public health problem of drug addiction as a criminal matter.

“You’re making a choice that you’re devoting significant resources to,” he said.

Still, Ryan said that if that choice is made, drug labs should operate under the principles of forensic science and not an “assembly line.”

Newman said that Farak and Dookhan cases show the short cuts the criminal justice system will take, to “put people behind the razor wire.” And he indicted the war on drugs and war on crime as responsible for the destruction of millions of families across the United States.

“Misguided policies result in Farak and Dookhan,” Newman said.

Those who wish to see if their drug conviction was overturned can call 1-888-999-2881.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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